CINCINNATI -- A.J. Green looked across the line of scrimmage and got a sobering look at a potential decline in his career.
For the bulk of Green's 10-year career, opposing defenses typically used their top cornerback against the Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver. But in the loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 11, cornerback Marlon Humphrey was matched up against Cincinnati's Tyler Boyd. Even if it was mostly a schematic matchup (Boyd and Humphrey are primarily in the slot), it was another sign that 2020 wasn't going well for Green.
In his return to the field for the first time in two seasons, Green's struggles can be partially attributed to bouts of self-doubt. That's why Green's performance in Sunday's 31-27 loss to the Indianapolis Colts could be the turning point of his season.
The 32-year-old Green easily posted his best game since returning from an ankle injury that kept him off the field last year. Green caught eight of 11 targets for 96 yards. It was the type of game he needed to boost his self-confidence.
"It felt good to feel like my old self again," Green said.
The seven days between the Ravens and Colts games were one of the more turbulent times in the seven-time Pro Bowler's career.
Against the Ravens, Green was unproductive and was officially ruled out in the second half with an ankle injury. A TV camera captured an exchange on the sideline between Green and a Bengals staffer that appeared to show Green suggesting the team should trade him if he can't be used effectively.
Even if he didn't mean it (Green later questioned the accuracy of the lip-reading), it was a sign of his frustration in not only his usage but the inability to perform to the standard set during his career.
"I get in my head," Green said Thursday. "I think the frustration just took over where I'm not just playing my game. I usually go out there and play relaxed and play free and usually let the game come to me."
Green did exactly that against the Colts. He led the Bengals in receptions and targets and had three drive-extending catches. Even an incomplete pass on a third-and-1 was encouraging. Despite the fact that he felt Indianapolis cornerback Xavier Rhodes got away with a little holding, Green was happy to be going against the other team's top guy by the end of the game.
"He's a great corner, man," Green said. "I've been going against him since he's been in Minnesota. It's always a great matchup."
Sunday's game showed what Green can bring to the Bengals' offense, which is pivotal given the uncertainty surrounding his long-term future.
The Bengals declined to give Green a long-term deal in the offseason and opted for a one-year franchise tag. While Green has been one of the best wide receivers in team history, he missed 23 of the previous 24 games coming into the season because of various injuries.
A hamstring problem also limited him during this preseason, which also is partially culpable for Green's slow start. But more than anything, Green appeared to lack self-conviction in his abilities.
But against the Colts, Green was a key weapon for rookie quarterback Joe Burrow and the Bengals' offense.
"A.J. played really, really well," Burrow said. "That was good to see. We need to build on that this week in practice."
If Green continues to play that well, he will increase the odds of landing at least one more lucrative contract before the end of his career. For now, Sunday's outing showed Green that he still has enough left to merit attention from a defense's best corner -- a challenge he's more than happy to accept.